John Pierpont Morgan? John D. Rockefeller? William Rockefeller? Jay Gould? Jesse Livermore?
Dear Quote Investigator: The best-known prediction for investors is also the most humorously vacuous. According to legend a young person approached one of the top businessmen in the U.S. and asked with an undertone of desperation for guidance in the stock market. The prominent man looked gravely at his questioner and replied:
I believe the market will fluctuate.
Who crafted this unerringly accurate and perfectly useless forecast? I have heard it attributed to the powerful financier J. P. Morgan and the major industrialist John D. Rockefeller.
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in an anecdote credited to Henry Poor in the pages of the Wall Street Journal in October 1922. Today, Henry Poor is remembered as the founder of the firm which became the powerhouse financial analysis company called Standard & Poor’s. He died in 1905 several years before the article presenting the tale was published.
In this version of the story Poor was inquiring about a set of companies called Standard Oils. There were several Standard Oil companies, e.g., Standard Oil of Ohio and Standard Oil of New Jersey, even before the breakup mandated by anti-trust regulators in 1911. The companies were linked together through a trust structure, and John D. Rockefeller was the most powerful owner and executive of the Standard Oil Trust: 1
Henry Poor used to tell this story: He walked down to the financial district with John D. Rockefeller one morning and tried to elicit some information as to the market for Standard Oils. The latter passed two blocks before giving an answer and then said slowly, “I think they will fluctuate.” During the next few days they dropped over 30 points.
In 1924 another instance of the story was printed in the Washington Post. The questioner was an unidentified young person: 2
A smart young man is said to have approached Mr. Rockefeller with the question, “Mr. Rockefeller, what do you think Standard Oil stocks will do?” After ponderous deliberation, the reply was, “Young man, I think they will fluctuate.”
In 1926 the book “Security Speculation: The Dazzling Adventure” was published, and the author presented a variant of the anecdote featuring John Pierpont Morgan instead of Rockefeller. The inquiry concerned the overall stock market and not specific securities. Also, the label “legend” was already being employed: 3
Legend avers that an alert young man once found himself in the immediate presence of the late Mr. J. P. Morgan. Seeking to improve the golden moment, he ventured to inquire Mr. Morgan’s opinion as to the future course of the stock market. The alleged reply has become classic: “Young man, I believe the market is going to fluctuate.”
It did. It always has. Perhaps it always will. In the main, security prices are always and eternally going somewhere.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1927 the tale appeared with a group of comical short items in a newspaper section titled “Jollier”. The word “thought” was spelled “thot” in the following passage which presented John D. Rockefeller as an ineffectual stock tipster: 4
John D. Rockefeller, asked three years ago what he thot the stock market would do, replied “I think it will fluctuate.” The tip is still good.
In 1928 a tome for the upcoming year was released called “Morrow’s Almanack for the Year of Our Lord 1929”. An instance of the yarn was included with some interesting wrinkles. The protagonist was William Rockefeller instead of his brother of John D., and the setting was specified as the period of ten years before World War I: 5
It was during the decade before the World War when William Rockefeller, then a leading figure in the financial world, was accosted on lower Broadway by a presumptuous acquaintance, with the question, “What do you think, Mr. Rockefeller, Standard Oil is going to do?” and he replied in his slow way, cane shaking in hand (Mr. Rockefeller suffered from palsy) “I expect it will fluctuate.”
In 1934 a newspaper in Middletown, New York printed the narrative, but the writer also expressed some uncertainty. Fortunately, rigorous fact-checking was not required, and the writer happily substituted the names of other financial titans, i.e., Jay Gould and Jesse Livermore, into the story: 6
It recalls somewhat the old story of J. Pierpont Morgan, “the Magnificent,” when someone asked him what the stock market was going to do. “I can tell you exactly what it will do for years to come,” he said. “It will fluctuate.”
Perhaps it was Jay Gould or Jesse Livermore who said it, but that is of no consequence. In the same way, if someone asks what is the situation of farm prices, there is always the same reply: “Mixed.”
In 1937 “The Trader” column of Barron’s published an instance of the anecdote with John D. giving predictive advice about a single stock: 7
There is a story, probably apocryphal, that the elder Rockefeller, once asked what he thought Standard Oil of New Jersey stock might do, replied “I think it will fluctuate.” The divergent movements in the past few months of so many leading issues must make it plain that stocks are still fluctuating and not moving in a straight line.
In 1937 a Wall Street trader showed how to deploy the tale defensively in an interview: 8
Interview with a Wall Street trader:
Q. What’s the market going to do?
A. John D. Rockefeller answered that question long ago, and his reply is one of the stock adages of the street. He said: “It’s going to fluctuate.”
In 1939 the prominent financial journalist Sylvia F. Porter employed the saying in Time magazine: 9
When she is asked about short-term prospects, she quotes the forecast of an anonymous financier: “The stock market, sir, will fluctuate.”
In 1950 an advertisement for Value Line Investment Survey in Barron’s included a sequence of three popular quotations with oft-repeated attributions: 10
“The stock market will fluctuate”—J. P. Morgan
“Buy Cheap, Sell Dear”—Baron Rothschild
“FIRST OF ALL, KNOW VALUE”—Charles H. Dow
In 1955 a syndicated column of Washington news reported on an elaborate account given by the Secretary of the U. S. Treasury George M. Humphrey: 11
“Somebody said: ‘Mr. Morgan, you are familiar with the stock market.’ He said: ‘Yes.’ They said: ‘You know quite a lot about it?’ And he said: ‘Yes. I do.’
They said: ‘Do you think you can tell us what the stock market will do?’ He said: ‘Yes, I can.’ They said: ‘That is very interesting. Will you please do so?’ He said: ‘Yes. It will fluctuate.’
In 1966 Time magazine gave a vivid account with a bristling mustache: 12
Wall Street runs two ways—up and down. This fact was recognized long ago by one of the Street’s alltime moguls, J. Pierpont Morgan. When asked by a brash young investor for a forecast about how the market would go, Morgan glared down his generously endowed nose, bristled his mustache, and replied: “It will fluctuate, young man. It will fluctuate.”
In conclusion, currently the earliest instance of this joke appeared in 1922. The tale was attached to Henry Poor who died years earlier in 1905. Poor supposedly asked John D. Rockefeller about securities associated with Standard Oil, a topic of intimate knowledge for Rockefeller. Hence, the earliest anecdote was not about the stock market in general.
Over time the story evolved, and it was reassigned to J. P. Morgan and William Rockefeller. Since J. P. Morgan did not have special knowledge about Standard Oil the tale was altered so the query was about the overall stock market.
QI believes this fable is fun and entertaining, but the supporting evidence is problematic. The data above is just a snapshot of what is known, and the future may see more discoveries.
(Great thanks to top lexicographical researcher Barry Popik who performed seminal pioneering work tracing this expression.)
- 1922 October 18, Wall Street Journal, What of the Market?, Quote Page 2, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1924 December 31, Washington Post, Straight Talks About Money: Acting on Financial Tips by Mary Elizabeth Allen, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Washington D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1926, Security Speculation: The Dazzling Adventure by Laurence H. Sloan (Laurence Henry Sloan), Quote Page 17, Harper & Brothers, New York and London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1927 January 11, The Coshocton Tribune, Jollier, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Coshocton, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1928, Morrow’s Almanack for the Year of Our Lord 1929, The Stock Market for 1929 by Harold T. Johnson, Page 244, William Morrow & Co., New York. (Verified with scans thanks to the Sarasota History Center of Sarasota, Florida) ↩
- 1934 February 28, Middletown Times Herald, Farm Factors by Arthur H. Jenkins (Editor Farm Journal), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Middletown, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1937 March 1, Barron’s, THE TRADER: Gives His Views of the Market, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ABI/Inform Complete) ↩
- 1937 March 25, Hammond Times, My New York by James Aswell, (News Service: Central Press Annotation), Quote Page 16, Column 3, Hammond, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1939 April 3, Time, MARKETS: Free Rider, Time Inc., New York. (Accessed time.com on September 29, 2013; Online Time archive) ↩
- 1950 October 30, Barron’s National Business and Financial Weekly, Advertisement from Value Line Investment Survey, Quote Page 24, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ABI/Inform Complete) ↩
- 1955 March 13, Aberdeen Daily News, Capitol Chatter by Walter T. Ridder, Wesley Peyton and Robert E Lee, (American-News Washington Bureau), Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1966 August 19, Time, U.S. Business: Wall Street: A Long Look Upward, Time Inc., New York. (Accessed time.com on September 29, 2013; Online Time archive) ↩